Hal Hartley

Hal Hartley didn't want to make movies; he wanted to make art. But at some point over the course of his art-school education, Hartley began to move toward filmmaking, a decision that resulted in such films as The Unbelievable Truth (1990), Trust (1990), the made-for-PBS Surviving Desire (1991), Simple Men (1992), and Amateur (1994). Most of his movies are radically deadpan comedies, but they are ultimately more moving than most films which spell out what their audiences should be feeling at every turn. Recent years have found Hartley breaking out of the pattern his early work set for him: Widely released only last year, 1995's Flirt starts off as a fairly typical Hartley film, then proceeds to replay variations on the same story in two other cities and two other languages. Then there's the soon-to-be-released Henry Fool. While the film moves away from the self-aware experimentation of Flirt, it should in no way be taken as a retreat. The story of a drifter (the title character, played by Thomas Jay Ryan in his film debut) whose appearance effects a major change in the life of a young man (James Urbaniak), Henry Fool allows Hartley to tell a "big, fat story" that takes on issues of love, politics, morality, influence, and the role of art. Also featuring Parker Posey, it's a weighty, entertaining movie that could be Hartley's finest work yet. Hartley spoke to The Onion a couple of months ago, shortly before leaving for Europe to work on a new play and attend the Cannes Film Festival. There, the often unpredictable script to Henry Fool won the Best Screenplay award. Those concerned about having plot points spoiled for them might want to consider reading the following interview—in which Hartley discusses his film, the French, and why he cast Polly Jean Harvey in a movie—after seeing Henry Fool.

The Onion: After Flirt, which was probably your most experimental film, you made this movie, which is probably the most novelistic thing you've done. Was that a conscious choice?

Hal Hartley: Yeah. I think that after going too far in one direction, I was really anxious to come back and just tell a big, fat story.

O: It's also a return to suburbia for the first time in a while. Is there a reason you keep coming back to it?

HH: Not really. It's sort of, actually, an urban space that's right next to New York City. It's a place I was always curious about when I would travel to New York from where my family lived my whole life. I'd see this town called Woodside, which is right outside New York, and geographically it was this very interesting place where the subway went down above the main road. It had a number of subways criss-crossing over it, and it was very densely populated and a big mix culturally. It also has an old-American-town feeling. It brought a lot of things I felt the story needed. In many ways, it's a more representative town than something I might have been able to find in the suburbs, further away from the city.

O: In Henry Fool, you worked without some of your usual actors. Was that a matter of them not being available?

HH: I think it just started from the scripts. I needed different kinds of people, different kinds of faces, and I found it necessary to go out and look for fresh faces. Tom Ryan, who plays Henry, is somebody I'd seen in theater a number of times, and I think we have an affinity for the same type of fairly experimental, avant-garde theater. He was in a number of things I'd seen, and I admired his command of language. I thought that would be very appropriate for Henry, and also that Tom could be really huge in a kind of intimate situation.

O: James Urbaniak strikes me as a natural to play the hero in one of your movies.

HH: His restraint is actually very natural. He's hard to read, and I like that. I don't want the people to be too easy to read for us, the audience. But in this case, James, just as a person I know, is inscrutable.

O: You've said you didn't show Simon's [Urbaniak's character] work in the film because films that actually portray artists' works get it wrong. But making him a poet was interesting, because this seems to be a time when there's less widespread appreciation of poetry than at any other time.

HH: Yeah, I wanted it to be something that was highly unlikely, now. And I didn't want to put us, the audience, into a situation where we would be able to form judgments about the aesthetic value, the artistic value of the poem. Because ultimately that's not really what's at issue; I want us to meditate on the relationship between Henry and Simon.

O: Simon achieves fame largely through the Internet. Do you have any thoughts on the Internet and how it affects art?

HH: Well, I have a lot of questions and a lot of interest in seeing how it will develop and how it will change art. Thus far, I don't really think it has. I know there's a particular kind of computer-generated imagery and a kind of... There's almost like an art society that grows out of that that I'm very interested in. But I was looking for something that really could happen these days, a way for somebody's individual creative endeavor to bypass the conventional structures of legitimacy. How do you make your art legitimate? Usually you have to go into business with people who are publishers or, in my case, movie distributors. You have to gain legitimacy by becoming a viable commercial item. Everybody since time immemorial [has done that], and I remember a number of years ago, people talking about what the Internet could mean to our accepted notions of legitimacy, that it could subvert the established order. That's interesting, and I'm waiting to see if it will happen.

O: In this film, you do show, with Simon and Henry's attempts to get published, the relationship between art and commerce.

HH: I think that can't be avoided. It's actually part of my own experience, being a creative person, that I don't shy away from. I like a certain degree of push and pull between the marketplace and, well, the ivory tower. I'm not afraid of it. I'm not afraid of the commerce aspect of it. But it was something I really wanted to address. I have a fair degree of respect for the character of the publisher: He changes his mind, because there are events happening in the world around him that cause him to reassess his immediate reaction to Simon's poem. I think that's legitimate. It's good to not try to quash that ambivalence if you're a creative person, and probably also if you're a business person whose business is selling creative work. I've always had a pretty exciting, dynamic, sometimes frustrating relationship with commerce. But not that badly, really, compared to other people's war stories. I just try to approach it with an open mind. Usually, I solve all my art-versus-commerce problems the same way: I just make the film cheaper. That kind of does away with any argument.

O: The characters in Henry Fool are probably more emotionally demonstrative than characters in most of your other movies. Is this in part because it's about how people respond to art?

HH: Well, that was important. But I think I could have made a movie like Henry Fool that shows people's reactions to art with the same sort of restrained emotional demonstration that we associate with some of my other movies. I think it was just a desire on my part to make it more broad and easily recognizable. I thought the movie had enough issues to engage us, as an audience, that I didn't want to stack it too much. I didn't want it to be too difficult to penetrate. It's just a lot. It's difficult to penetrate on a lot of other levels. It just felt right to me, in terms of showing how people are feeling and their interactions, to really do it straight-ahead and not be too formal about it.

O: The way Flirt was received struck me as kind of odd, like people were critical just because you were trying to do something different.

HH: I don't think I had any illusions that it would hit the kind of audience that Simple Men, or Amateur, or Trust hit. I knew it was unconventionally structured and, you know... It sought to engage you in a way different from a conventional movie, although it was meant to be entertainment. I wanted it to be an entertaining movie, but in a different way than a conventionally structured piece of fiction. I was surprised [at the reception], you know. You can't dwell on it too much.

O: What do you want people to be thinking about after seeing Henry Fool? It has that really ambiguous ending.

HH: Well, I hope they come out and get into well-intended arguments about what Henry was. Can you like this guy? Is it okay to like him? Should he be forgiven for anything? Why is he so certain that he won't get justice if he stays in town? Things like that. I kind of imagine that Simon has come to understand that it's essential to us, as a community, to have a Henry Fool in it every now and again. A complete... One person who embodies all these contradictions that the rest of us... Just trying to be decent members of society, we have to eradicate those contradictions in ourselves. And so we're afraid of, and also admire at the same time, these people who can exist without having to stifle those contradictions.

O: The name "Henry Fool" and some of the other character names seem to be signposts. Why is that?

HH: Well, I think I wanted them to be signposts. [Laughs.] Signposts that get kind of subverted. Henry comes in in this big, iconic kind of way: mythic, striding down the street, and he has such authority.

O: Was that in slow motion?

HH: No, but it probably feels like it. It's such a long lens; it's a 350 mm lens, which squishes everything. You'll see that a lot in Sam Peckinpah movies. He uses long lenses for extreme action scenes, because even without slowing things down, it does kind of distort.

O: Part of your early experience with film involved using photographs from Sight And Sound in your art projects.

HH: Yeah, I used to just draw pictures from Sight And Sound. They have all these great pictures.

O: But you weren't really a follower of film before.

HH: Not really.

O: What was your relationship with movies before you became interested in making them?

HH: Well, I guess it was just like this other kind of entertainment that existed out there. I was much more into music and art. So I'd go to galleries and listen to music, and those seemed to be really important things. When I was at art school, I also took a course in filmmaking, an elective. That was by no means a narrative situation, because it's art school: The kind of film being done there was more akin to the visual arts. We were given cameras and learned about photography and any kind of moving image. Once I started doing that, I think I began to drift unconsciously toward stories. Of course, my pictures were always very narrative; I was a graphic artist. I was more akin to an illustrator. And then it took maybe a year or so... I had to leave art school, and I went back to my hometown, got a job, and did something else. But I kept making movies, Super-8 movies, and they became progressively more narrative, and I began reading about making narrative and about fiction. I think by the time I had applied to a film school—and after two years at the film school—it was clear that what I wanted to do was tell stories.

O: So you had a lot of catching up to do in terms of watching older movies. Or did film school pretty much take care of that?

HH: That really did take care of that. We had history courses all the time, so I really saw a lot of the background.

O: You made a movie for French television [as one of a group of 10 directors each given an hour to portray the last day of the century]. Tell me about that.

HH: We all made movies about the last day of the century—anything we wanted, as long as it takes place on Dec. 31, 1999. I had been working, because of some other work I had been doing, on a particular kind of subject matter. And they said, "You've got to make it funny, please, because none of the others are funny. And you have to make it really cheap and really fast." I reached into sort of the apocrypha of all this other stuff I've been working on for this play, which is about millennial Christians in America, this apocalyptic-minded kind of Christianity. So I had all this pretty funny stuff that didn't fit into the play. I grabbed all that stuff and made a movie about the second coming. A lot of people are expecting that God will come back to Earth on the last day of the century and judge the living and the dead. So I made a movie about that.

O: P.J. Harvey is in it. How did she get involved?

HH: I've known P.J. Harvey for a while, and she had expressed interest in the past in being an actress. She felt that might be something she could do well. And I'd always encouraged her, because I think that's true. I mean, she could do this pretty well. I had this character of Mary Magdalene who is hanging around, being like Jesus' bodyguard, and I just thought she was perfect for it, given the kind of persona she uses in her songwriting and singing and performance.

O: Do you ever plan to make an album? Your scores are always good.

HH: Well, maybe, somewhere along the line. I'm getting more and more confident with my music. Henry Fool is the first time I've done all the music myself.

O: And the first time you've used your own name in connection with it, right?

HH: Yeah, so that shows a little bit more confidence. This play I'm doing has original music by me. That will be a CD release at some point. That's the first time I think I've ever written music before we rehearse and shape the play. It's the first time I've made music that was the primary source. It wasn't meant to help the image of the story. It's got an authority of its own.

O: Have you found the stereotype true that American films which aren't really accepted or understood over here are better understood in Europe?

HH: I don't know, you know? That's the general thing people say about my films, that the French understand my films better than Americans do. But I prefer to say that the French appreciate my films in a way that is different from the way people appreciate my films here in America.

O: In what way?

HH: I just read some reviews by French critics talking about my films, attributing significance to them that I just don't think is there. I didn't intend to put it there. That's all fine and dandy for, you know... They can talk about what they want and apply significance to it if they actually feel like they see it there. But the French pretty much think I make fun of my culture. And they love it when Americans do that. I don't really think my films make fun of my culture any more than they celebrate it. I don't know what you're supposed to do about that. People are allowed to say what they feel like saying about your films.